The Language of Diversity

For most of my life, I have felt like I was in this weird no-man’s land of diversity.  I’m neither “underrepresented” in my chosen profession (though Asians are not in leadership positions at the same rate), nor part of the majority.    During segregation, some of my relatives stated they weren’t sure which facilities they were supposed to use – colored or white.   Though thankfully we don’t have this conundrum today, the language of diversity – what we call each other, what we call the behavior, how we describe the situation – is still just as troubling to me.

I get it though.  Life and people are complicated.  Everyone’s experience is different, so finding the right language to describe such nuances is difficult and fraught with emotion and connotation.  And in our attempt to not offend, I believe we have instead opted to minimize.

For example, when examining our policy around diversity, we use the language of “prohibited behavior.”  You may not harass, discriminate or retaliate against people if they are in a protected class.    In other words, if you are not targeting someone because of protected class status, then feel free to harass, retaliate and discriminate with impunity.  Apparently it’s legal, assuming you can prove it’s not based on a protected class.

Even the phrase “prohibited behavior” minimizes what it is.  When I was in school, also prohibited were wearing skirts above the knees, sleeveless shirts, T-shirts with graphic images or offensive words, chewing gum or having other food in class, and kissing in the hallways.   These sorts of prohibited behavior are hardly on par with those that create inequity and a hostile environment, yet we use comparable language to describe them.

“Prohibited behavior” also focuses on the person committing the offense, sanitizing  the impact on the targeted person.  Such behavior is, in truth, oppressing, abusing, bullying, marginalizing, controlling, criticizing, subjugating, excluding, devaluing, mistreating, denigrating, ignoring, violating, demeaning, treating contemptuously, etc.   This type of prohibited behavior is, at best, a bad idea and at worst, is damaging and immoral.  

I understand why we do it.  We all have biases, both conscious and unconscious.  When confronted with our biases we often react defensively and angrily.  Neutral language is sometimes required to even allow the conversation to happen.  However, as we’re placating the perpetrators, what are we doing to those who are suffering from the discrimination?

Though I’m in this weird class of a sort-of-minority, I have experienced racism and even sexism most of my life. Though I believe I have processed that contempt and become a better person because of it, I still have difficulty recognizing and healing from discrimination unless I fully acknowledge its presence and impact on me.   This neutral language, though probably designed to allow people to confront their biases, is a barrier to having an honest dialogue, real accountability and healing.

I really don’t know the solution to this conundrum.  However, my own healing requires that I recognize and name the behavior for what it is, and acknowledge the impact it’s having on me and even on our community.  I recognize the need and benefit of an indirect approach but fear that in the end, it does more damage than good.

Finding Forgiveness, Moment by Moment

Despite our affluence and quality of life in America, so many people are filled with anger or hate (sometimes directed at themselves), depression, apathy, despair, resentment.  But for people who have had real, actual, bona fide suffering, shouldn’t they be entitled to feel angry, hateful, depressed, indifferent, victimized or despair?  Of course they are.  People are entitled to whatever feelings they are having.  They are their feelings and no one should tell anyone else they shouldn’t feel the way they do, even if they disagree with their emotional reaction.  Each person sees and experiences the world through their own unique filter.  No one else can know what their personal experience is, and in my opinion, should be able to judge it either.

However, what we choose to do with our emotional reaction is completely our responsibility.  For instance, I may get angry about something – likely I can’t control that immediate reaction – but I then have a choice.  I can either wallow in my anger, get angrier, take it out on someone, get depressed, or feel sorry for myself.  I may choose to channel it into something worse like self-destructive behavior, drug or alcohol abuse, or I can pretend none of it happened, internalize it and create a psychosomatic illness. Or maybe I’ll just let it manifest in my relationships – avoiding intimacy so I don’t risk getting hurt or act passive-aggressively rather than talk about my feelings.

My other choice is to try to do something more constructive with that emotion.  I may choose to take action to remedy the situation – talk to the manager/boss, write a letter to my Congressman, start a blog, raise money for a cure or remedy, start a petition or a boycott.

Another option, not mutually exclusive, might be to examine my own reaction to the situation.  Perhaps my feelings, though valid, may be disproportional to the situation.  For example, if someone cut me off on the freeway, I may feel differently about that person if I knew they had a medical emergency they were responding to.  I may feel differently about my friend yelling at or ignoring me if I knew that she was worried about her debt.  The point is, it is as hard to know what is going on in someone else’s world as it is knowing what is happening in mine.

Even if my reaction is in-line with the offense, since there are really awful, terrible things that happen to people, I still have a choice regarding how to respond.  One of my favorite stories about forgiveness is from Kim Phuc.  She’s the girl in the famous Vietnam War photo who was photographed after her village was napalmed.  Her clothes were burned off her body and she required 14 months of hospitalization and 17 operations to recover.  By anyone’s measure, Kim has a right to feel anger, hatred, depression, victimized, martyrdom, despair – you name it – by this awful thing done to her as an innocent child.  She says, “The anger inside me was like a hatred as high as a mountain. I hated my life. I hated all people who were normal because I was not normal. I really wanted to die many times.” (NPR, This I Believe)

It took 10 years and her Christian faith before Kim made the choice to forgive, freeing her and her heart from hatred.  “ I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days, but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful.” Sometimes people say things like, “he doesn’t deserve forgiveness.”  Forgiveness is not for whom is being forgiven, but the forgiver.

Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.”  – Suzanne Somers

With forgiveness, Kim heals herself , not necessarily the soldiers who bombed her village.  She inspires

Kim Phuc in Vietnam

Kim Phuc in Vietnam

a foundation called Kim Foundation International whose mission is to help children wounded physically and psychologically by war.  So, instead of choosing to perpetuate hate and depression in herself (and likely others), instead Kim perpetuates healing and love with her grace.

There are countless inspirational stories of forgiveness.NPR Storycorp describes how Mary Johnson forgave Oshea Isreal, who murdered her only son.  Mary wanted “to go over and hurt” her son’s murderer.  Now, Mary and Oshea are neighbors and she treats him like a son.  Though forgiven, Oshea is still trying to forgive himself, using Mary as an inspiration.  Mary’s choice to forgive continues to inspire and help others as she has also founded a non-profit devoted to supporting women who lost their children to violence.

Some of you may have had wrong done to you on par with Kim or Mary.  Most of us will fortunately never know that kind of grief, yet have trouble forgiving real or imaginary, but contextually lesser offenses.  If only the rest of the world had the luxury to hold grudges over things as minor as failing to take out the trash, not getting the game system or shoes they wanted, forgetting an anniversary, arriving late, infidelity or saying something unthoughtful or harsh.

(Just a point of clarification:  forgiveness does not mean you continue to allow someone to mistreat you.  Forgiveness will affect how you feel towards a person, but may or may not affect your actions regarding that person.)

Strangely, I had to forgive myself for my initially unconscious self-directed anger before I was able to really forgive others.   Life is too short and our loved ones are too precious to spend any time feeling anger or resentment.  Additionally, the only thing we can count on is the present moment.  In the present, there is no past resentment or anger, nor is there anticipation for being wronged in the future.  There is only the now, and in the now I choose to feel grateful for my imperfect loved ones in our beautiful, imperfect world.

Forgiveness and love - Kim Phuc

Forgiveness and love – Kim Phuc